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How climate justice took one activist from a Wyoming reservation to international summits

Big Wind Carpenter, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, says they personally witnessed environmental racism before they even knew there was a name for it.

In the area of Wyoming where Carpenter, who identifies as two-spirit and uses they/them pronouns, grew up, fossil fuel extraction is a major part of the economy. Much of that industrial activity, they said, “strategically” bypasses areas where non-Native people live.

“There’s golf courses and mansions on the north side of the Wind River, but where I grow up on the south side … there’s mobile homes and trailers and a factory that for a long time was used as a means to turn uranium into yellowcake,” Carpenter told The Hill in a recent interview.

Growing up on the Wind River Reservation, they said, both instilled the values that drive their climate activism and deeply demonstrated the need for it.

“Reciprocity and the laws of nature are already important for us,” said Carpenter, the tribal engagement coordinator at the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Growing up with those things really taught me to appreciate the environment.”

Over the years, they became involved in front-line activism in that community, notably in the 2017 campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline. After that project went through, Indigenous anti-pipeline activists sought international attention, which led Carpenter to policy work with the United Nations’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as SustainUs, a youth organization that sends delegations to COP and other climate summits.

Carpenter’s been part of the Indigenous delegation at multiple COP summits, including the most recent last year, and said they have seen a marked improvement of giving Indigenous peoples — many of whom are on the front lines of climate change — a seat at the negotiating table.

“I think there’s procedures in process right now that have allowed us to really utilize a collective Indigenous voice in the last few years,” Carpenter said. “My first year, the Indigenous peoples’ organization … was essentially still developing, in the sense that our events were happening in what’s called the Green Zone and not happening where the negotiations were happening. Over the last few years, there’s been a push from that Green Zone into the Blue Zone where the negotiations are happening.”

At COP28, Carpenter was part of the “Knowledge Keepers” delegation, an assembly of Indigenous delegates from the planet’s seven bio-regions. The members of the delegation discussed how their respective technologies and folkways can be implemented to aid conservation.

Carpenter has done similar work with the state of Wyoming on co-stewardship agreements with the Bureau of Land Management for the Red Desert, a sagebrush steppe in the southern part of the state.

At COP28, they said, “I was able to share that, a local story and how that relates back to the international ideas” the delegation was discussing.

At home in the U.S., Carpenter said they see both notable successes and room for improvement in how the climate movement incorporates Indigenous perspectives.

The leadership of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, “has been a huge win for Indigenous people,” they said. This goes beyond the milestone she represents — since her confirmation, Carpenter said, her guidelines on co-stewardship of land have represented huge steps forward for Native communities.

Another major advancement, they said, would be policies that allow tribes to not only offer feedback but receive federal dollars to implement their ideas for public lands protections. “Consultation is not consent, and what has happened historically is, [federal] agents are looking for a rubber-stamping method,” they said. “I think it’s really good to see that we’re moving away from this tokenized relationship with Indigenous people into something that is more meaningful.”

On the international stage, Carpenter said they have high hopes for the COP30 summit, set to take place in Brazil in 2025Brazil has one of the largest Indigenous populations of any single country — about 1.7 million people from 305 tribes — and is also the home of some of the largest carbon sinks in the Amazon rainforest.

“We’re going to see Indigenous peoples’ voices really uplifted, and … we’re going to see a lot of those ideas implemented, which I’m really excited about,” they said.

However, Carpenter also raised concerns about the future of the COP summit, noting that both the last two meetings in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and this year’s COP29, which will take place in Azerbaijan, are hosted by countries that are major oil producers, accused human rights violators or both.

“Having the COP in an area that does not support freedom of speech, that does not support protests … did not allow society to act in the way civil society has been able to in a lot of other spaces,” they said. “A lot of these things that we take for granted here in the United States are not guaranteed by the government, and that stifles the progress that civil society can make.”

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